William James: “Pragmatism” (1906–1907)

William James delivered the lectures that make up the book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking in late 1906 and early 1907. They build on the conclusions of The Variety of Religious Experiences. Essentially, his perspective on religion was pragmatic and based on observably significant religious experiences. This collection of essays is a more general statement of these principals. It seems to be to be an essentially correct perspective, resting on the idea that what matters as true is what works. And what does not work should be rejected as false. A major reason to accept his position is that “Truth” actually matters little in the world as we experience it, even if it could be determined (which Kant already showed is not really possible).


He starts out by describing the “dilemma in philosophy” as between empiricists and rationalists. He shows his clear preference for the empiricists. He puts it quite nicely in the following. “You want a system that will combine both things, the scientific loyalty to facts and willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and accommodation, in short, but also the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity, whether of the religious of the romantic type. And this is then your dilemma: you find the two parts of your quaesitum hopelessly separated. You find empiricism with inhumanism and irreligion; or else you find a rationalistic philosophy that indeed may call itself religious, but that keeps out of all definite touch with concrete facts and joys and sorrows.” (495)

He then approaches the basic philosophy of pragmatism, stating that what matters is the concrete consequences of a particular claim. What is so radically powerful about this perspective is that it makes truth (he is indifferent to Truth) “malleable to human needs.” (515) “Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they had practical consequences.” (522) This seems to me a democratic, fair-minded, and useful approach.

The rest of the lectures explore different ramifications of this position. One is that categories of substances (whiteness, combustibility, insolubility, etc.) are purely creations of pragmatic humans. This is about as clear a rejection of idealism as I can think of. Of course, that this can be immediately extended to character may be troubling to some. Of course, I am rather sympathetic to the idea that honesty or value or generosity be reflected in human interactions rather than the realm of abstract ideas. This is also James’ defense of free-will. While it may be “Truth” that free-will is an illusion, we act as if we have free-will and that assumption works fairly well in a host of questions in human societies.

He includes in the book a foundational argument to his next major work, The Pluralistic Universe.

Pragmatism, pending the final empirical ascertainment of just what the balance of union and disunion among things may be, must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side. Some day, she admits, even total union, with one knower, one origin, and a universe consolidated in every conceivable way, may turn out to be the most acceptable of all hypotheses. Meanwhile the opposite hypothesis, of a world imperfectly unified still, and perhaps always to remain so, must be sincerely entertained. This latter hypothesis is pluralism’s doctrine. Since absolute monism forbids its being even considered seriously, branding it as irrational from the start, it is clear that pragmatism must turn its back on absolute monism, and follow pluralism’s more empirical path. (556—557)


Let me attempt a pragmatic defense of anarchism. We certainly could accept an anarchist-communist principle like “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” on principal, but that is actually the least direct way to get there, and the path most likely to inspire resistance. It is much better to argue (as David Graeber did in a talk I saw) that this principle is essentially how we function in social relationships already. In the simple encounter of asking for direction, this principle is lived. When I ask from directions, I take from someone who owns knowledge freely from someone who is not capable (morally, most of us would agree) of refusing. In the workplace, the same principle usually applies. It would be a pretty inefficient workplace that did not accept at least the “from each according to their abilities” principal. To give a more difficult example, squatters rights (or the principal that ownership should derive from use) is simply a more efficient and just way to distribute housing. To rely on a hard principle of property rights in respect to housing is inefficient (requiring guards, banks, and all sorts of invasive legal proceedings) and unjust (ensuring that people with the need for homes will go without). Also, giving de facto ownership to occupants is basically how we see the world. When we visit a renter at their house, we act as if they were the owner. In every meaningful way that house (perhaps owned by an absentee landlord or a bank) is the moral domain of the one who lives there.

At the same time, it is may be a useful exercise to critique the state or capitalism using pragmatism. People may like in a democracy, while having little actually say over their lives. This actually seems to be empiraclly true for most people. In the same way, anarcho-capitalists may speak of free markets or free exchange, but have no empirical evidence that these exist or can exist. At the same time, pragmatically, we see that we can function without a state.

Well, I am sure a philosopher or a James’ specialist can set me right on this, but I find this a reasonable extension of what he was saying in Pragmatism. Capitalism seems to be an imposition of abstract principles (most significantly property ownership) over a more pragmatic perspective.


3 responses to “William James: “Pragmatism” (1906–1907)

  1. Pingback: Cryptoquote Spoiler – 03/05/14 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

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